Kaia Sand: interval
by Kaia Sand
Political poems tend to sag under the weight of their agendas. The poet’s sense of outrage filters in, burdening the poem with didacticism, or the poet finds himself speaking on behalf of a group—Haitian refugees or spotted owls, for instance—and poems, compact by nature, don’t work when struggling beneath a multitude of voices. Yet many poets have written successful political poems, not least of all Carolyn Forché, who in “The Colonel” avoids the pitfalls of the genre by giving readers a straightforward, almost journalistic, account of the speaker’s encounter with a Central American dictator: a quotidian dinner, then the startling final image of the severed ears.
Kaia Sand, in the acknowledgments for interval (her debut book of poems) credits Forché, and clearly she, like her predecessor, has learned to sidestep the land mines associated with writing politically charged poetry. Partly Sand accomplishes this through the style and structure of her poems, which welcome fragmentation while rejecting pat endings, but also through her shifting tones, which reflect the varied emotions of the poet. Take, for instance, “primer on complacency,” where the speaker gives her readers a series of commands: “say ‘oh dear.’ home your american / dream. title this poem. find closure.” In this way the poem resembles a to-do list. Sand uses a sarcastic rather than a condemnatory tone, with the Leave It to Beaver language of “oh dear,” the now-cliché “american dream,” and the pop psychologynotion of closure, to subtly call a certain American way of life, whose practitioners treat their dreams and dilemmas as items to check off on a list, into question.
In “Cognitive Dissonance” Sand critiques the narrative poem for its tidy and perhaps oversimplified depiction of reality. Here, as elsewhere in interval, the epigraph (by Kristin Prevallet) serves to illuminate not only the poem it precedes, but those surrounding it as well: “She fainted at the sight of so many fragments, for she thought her mind was frazzled. Luckily, it was just the world, crumbling around her.” This idea of the fragmentary nature of the world seems patently postmodern, and language poets often strive to reflect that condition in their work. “Cognitive Dissonance,” for example, consists of shifting perspectives and overheard bits of conversation written in short prose fragments, so that readers come to see the poem as an example of the chaotic world to which Prevallet alludes. The poem breaks down entirely (or at least linguistically) at the end, concluding with a series of random numbers.
As Lyn Hejinian writes in “The Rejection of Closure,” “The experience of feeling overwhelmed by undifferentiated material is like claustrophobia. One feels panicky, closed in. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating.” Readers will likely classify Sand as a language poet who writes open texts varying markedly in form and rarely focusing on an individual speaker. Hejinian considers closure a fiction, and Sand clearly feels the same way, as evidenced by her sarcastic use of the term, but also by the way her poems, particularly in section two, bleed together in a lilting, dreamlike manner. Partly Sand achieves this effect through her use of repetition. In the second section (titled “progeny”) she emphasizes the natural world by repeating certain words and phrases–“copper,” “riverbed,” “fire,” “where wind where waves where flames”—within poems. Sand also chooses in “progeny” not to title her poems or to give them end punctuation. Many of the poems in interval end ambiguously. “Suppose the future,” for instance, appears to conclude mid-sentence: “it is now we must begin / to gather, it is now, this future / no future, this[.]”
In addition to the epigraph by Prevallet, Sand includes others by Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Charles Olson, Lucille Clifton, and Otto Rene Castillo, and these epigraphs, in conjunction with the notes that conclude interval, serve as useful guides to the poet’s objectives, as well as shedding light on her literary and ideological influences. Clifton’s epigraph, for example (“who / among us can imagine ourselves / unimagined?”), prefaces the poem “Letter to Layla al-Attar,” an elegy about an Iraqi artist killed in a US missile strike. In this poem one artist addresses another in an attempt to keep al-Attar’s memory alive, but the speaker also tries to imagine her own life “unimagined.” Sand’s placement of Charles Olson’s epigraph at the beginning of the book shows her debt to Olson, whose Projectivist poetics readers glimpse throughout, particularly in the line breaks, dictated less by meter and more by the ear, breath, and gut. Taken as a whole, the epigraphs give readers a good sense of the figures from whom the poet has drawn inspiration, but they also hint atwho will most enjoy Sand’s book—namely, fans of postmodern political feminist poetry.
Readers will likely find section two of —
more ambitious, but also more opaque, than section one, but the sounds and images compel even when meaning turns cloudy. Take, for instance, the assonance and alliteration in one of the poems from “progeny”: “unleashed moon deadweighs the day and the next. a lit matchbook like a bouquet of beckoning tyrannical dominion and each of us homeschools kind desire.” One can admire the passage for its lyricism, and when placed in context, meanings start to emerge, such as the essential beauty of the natural world and governmental control of resources. Many of the poems in this section begin with an emphasis on the personal and end by addressing more universal concerns, such as overpopulation, deforestation, erosion, and crop modification.
Throughout interval, Sand draws a wealth of meaning from a single word or phrase, one of her great strengths, for this demonstrates the playfulness but also the intellectual rigor of the poet. “cordials” begins as a love poem, and the title immediately calls to mind cordiality, fondness, and warmth: “all things which be cordial, / that is to say, which do in any way / comfort the heart,” Sand writes. The title also makes one think of drinking and celebration. The tone of the poem shifts, however, with the striking final lines “a daughter / I am at the wake.” Here “at the wake” might mean awake, signaling an inability to cast off one’s worries, but also calls to mind a gathering of a different sort, to mourn the death of a loved one.
Sand clearly revels in language, using it to surprise readers, to stimulate their thinking, and to call their assumptions into question. Lines as simple as “we say names so people / turn to us” or “what are role models / but anomalies” (from “Appellation”) stand out for their unalterable clarity and truth. Language, tone, a lack of “closure”—all these tools Sand uses to great effect, often in a political context. Whereas a poet like Carolyn Forché may rely on imagery and metaphor to make her points (“Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.”), Sand at times states matters more directly:
My national identity
speaks for me, across
to the dead
end of this imperialist
fiasco. (“Letter to Layla al-Attar”)
Whether readers approach this book for its vibrant language, its formal variety, or its
political content, they will come away admiring interval for the wit and care that
shaped each phrase.
Dan Pinkerton lives in State College, PA. Work of his has appeared, or is forthcoming, in redivider, Concho River Review, and American Literary Review.